ONWARD! True Life Stories of Challenges, Choices, & Change
Close to the end of creation, this anthology is due to come out at the end of November. I have been honored to be invited to serve on the committee producing this and to also design the cover. It has been a real treat to be a part of this small group, spearheaded by editor Emma Fulenwider. We meet almost every other week to orchestrate the unfolding of this powerful collection of stories from GAB instructors.
My own story of challenge, choices, and change was accepted and is listed in Part 3: Choices. I am excited and pleased by this and would like to share my story here which is part of my upcoming memoir, Imprint: Earth, My Mother. Sky, My Father.
In 1980, when I was 27 years old, I left my life behind—husband, job, house, family of origin—along with my identities as wife, sister and twin, daughter, even woman. I set out on a journey to uncover who I was and what place I held in the world, having never known either. In this story, as I backpack into the wilderness alone for the first time, I "imprint" on the Earth, my first real mother, who begins her teachings to me of how I might finally learn to be alive.
I am on a beach at King’s Range in northern California. The eastern edge of the dunes slopes up to land so rugged, coastal Route 1 is forced to move 35 miles inland. It is 1980. I am 27. I am walking north along the water on a beautiful day, the sand white, the sky blue and cloudless.
Rock formations swell to boulders here and there on the beach, making good shelter at night or blessed shade at high noon.
I can see that the hills above me grow into higher hills in the distance, even low mountains. Sparse vegetation, mostly scrub, populates what’s visible from here, as well as long grasses the color of faded gold this time of year, September.
On my feet I wear inexpensive white sneakers—just thin canvas—the old-fashioned kind we wore as kids. I so want to feel the earth beneath my feet, bend my toes around things if I want to, like wearing ballet slippers.
I carry the Northface pack I bought at the seconds store in Berkeley, saving up for months working as a maid in Mendocino. I got a sleeping bag there, too, along with kits I sewed for a mountain parka and down vest. I found a pup tent for $7.99 at the local hardware store—orange and red—just big enough for my pack, sleeping bag, and me.
I am backpacking alone for the first time. I have come here to check out my gear. Do a trial run. I haven’t done this before so I figure this will be something simple, just hike along the beach a few days, sleep under the stars like I did last night, the formations of rock rising up from the sand offering the illusion of protection.
Yesterday I traveled about 14 miles. I know this because my landlord in Elk (just south of Mendocino) loaned me an old topographic map, and I am charting my way. Most of the streams marked have long since dried up, or maybe it’s just the wrong season. But I see evidence of where they ran.
I’m surprised to find that I’m not frightened. It seems like the most natural thing in the world to be here, backpacking alone, and so far I’m excited. I love being alone. I had no idea.
I follow the beach. Most of the time, I look out at the ocean. I watch the horizon, that single line that never fluctuates, where sky meets sea. As I move along the shore, that line is always there, that seamless peace. No gap. No break. Just the comfort of all being right with the world when the earth is in communion with the sky.
I feel the foundation of that union, some part of me taking in that solid connection of earth and sky, a completeness, an undercurrent of balance, something to steady that part of me reeling from the events of the past year.
As I walk along the beach, the horizon line drawing me on, I think about how I have walked away from my husband and home and job in New England. And I am walking away from my mother, from the shadow of my father who died last year, from my twin sister, and from everyone else in my family. I am walking away from everything I have ever known, from a life in which I don’t know who I am and within which I have no place.
I stop and take off my shoes and socks. I want to feel the sand between my toes. Tying my shoes and socks to my pack, I hoist it up again. I attach the strap at my waist and tighten those on either side of my chest. I like the way this feels, a sense of security as if my pack is hugging me. I step forward, and it feels good to move my body.
Reaching the water’s edge, I wriggle my toes in the wet sand and then wade into the cool water. I am in the undertow, but the waves are mostly spent by the time they reach me. Still, a light pressure caresses my ankles and lower calves as the broken waves touch me.
Gulls fly and swirl up above, screeching out their lonely cries. Now and then, one spies a crab scuttling along the beach and dives suddenly to grasp it in its beak. Then, flying high, the gull drops the crab onto the rocks below, the shell bursting to offer up its sweet flesh.
The quiet thunder of the ocean fills my body. The smell of seaweed and salt. My being is immersed in the sheer pleasure and realness of sand and sea and sun.
I stand mesmerized as the waves crash and then slide into shore. I feel the rhythm of the water as it curls around my ankles and shins, pushing at my legs, seeking to pull me into its depths. Pushing, pulling, a slow dance filled with power, and I am caught in its rhythm. As I sink deeper and deeper into its primal movement, my senses remind me of another time, another rhythm that tickles my memory. But the memory doesn’t surface. It is lost somewhere within me, buried too deep.
As if waking from a dream, I move out of the waves back onto sand darkened by the water. Nothing has changed. The sand is still here. The sea. The occasional boulders and that steady line of the horizon.
But, looking back at this line again, somehow it is no longer enough. I have lost that sense of peace.
I turn to look at the hill that rises from the beach and feel the unknown of it pulling me towards it. I feel it scratching at me to join it. I haven’t brought hiking boots. All I have are these thin canvas sneaks. I find myself stirring, away from the water, towards the hill.
Stopping at a low rock to put shoes and socks back on, I set off to climb away from the here that I know and towards whatever it is I have yet to discover.